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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake, ballet in four Acts op. 20 (1876) – abridged version [90:53]
The Nutcracker suite no. 1, op. 71a (1892) [21:21]
The Nutcracker suite no. 2 (?) [25:15]
London Symphony Orchestra (Swan Lake), Paris Conservatoire Orchestra (Nutcracker)/Anatole Fistoulari
rec. 1951, La Maison de la Mutualité, Paris (Nutcracker); 1952 Kingsway Hall, London (Swan lake)
Mono recordings
ELOQUENCE 482 5225 [75:34 + 62:13]

Some of my favourite MWI feature articles in recent years have been those written by my colleague Christopher Howell in his informative series Forgotten Artists. Many of them focussed on musicians of whom, I confess, I’d never heard before, such as the conductor Franz André (review) or the pianist Hélène Boschi (review). Meanwhile, other Forgotten Artists articles concentrated their attention on a few men or women who, thanks, perhaps, to one or two well-loved recordings, still enjoy some fleeting degree of recognition: thus, if the name of Otto Ackermann (review) still hovers at the fringes of our consciousness, it is largely because of his participation in Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s first recording of The Merry Widow (review).

By including conductor Anatole Fistoulari in his “forgotten” list, Christopher was, however – as he himself conceded – possibly stretching the point. While admirers of various star instrumentalists of the 1950s and 1960s will not need to be reminded of the conductor’s skill as a sympathetic accompanist in concertos, it is balletomanes who cherish his name most highly for several classic recordings that still remain unsurpassed – even if, as was common practice at the time, they sometimes present quite significantly abridged versions of the scores.

Fistoulari had been a child prodigy, conducting Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony from memory at the age of just seven and Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson et Dalila just six years after that. Even at that early age, however, one contemporary critic was able to identify three particular qualities that the boy exhibited on the podium. While two of those (“uncanny memory” and “overpowering will”) may have been somewhat subjectively assessed observations, the third – “extraordinary rhythmic sense” – was a real and measurable musical characteristic that remained a feature of Fistoulari’s work throughout his career and was to make him a particularly fine conductor of music written for dancers.

During the course of his life, Fistoulari was to make three recordings of music from Swan Lake though each, sadly, is in some way flawed. The final one – set down in 1972-1973 with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra but only currently available as part of a 40-CD box set Phase 4 stereo: Stereo concert series (review) - is a full account of the ballet that ought to have been definitive. Unfortunately, however, by the time of its recording Fistoulari’s career was nearing its end and the performance is simply not up to the standard of its predecessors, with my colleague Dan Morgan describing listening to it as “a long, hard slog” (review).

Meanwhile, although the 1961 performance with the Concertgebouw Orchestra has, over the years, been repeatedly and rightly praised for its idiomatic musicality (review), it is too abridged an account to be considered anything more than a “highlights” selection. Recorded at very short notice when spare studio time became unexpectedly available, it includes, in order of performance, Swan Lake’s Introduction and numbers 1, 2, 8, 10, 11, 13d, 13e, 20, 5b, 24, 27 and 29 – a selection that takes up just 46:10 of disc space.

That leaves us, then, with the 1952 London Symphony Orchestra recording that is the subject of this review. It too is an incomplete account of the score. When, in 2006, it was released on the Japanese Opus Kura label (OPK 7024/5) it was described as “slightly abridged”; now, 13 years later, Decca Eloquence is marketing it somewhat more accurately as “abridged”. Even in its shortened form, however, 1952/LSO offers all the 1961/Concertgebouw numbers (with the exception of 2 and 5b) while also adding 4a, 4c, 4d, 4e, 4f, 6, 7, 12, 13a, 13b, 13c, 13g, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 21 and 23. As such, it gives us a total of 90:50 of the score – almost twice as much as that Amsterdam “highlights” disc, though still falling well short of a full Swan Lake performance that, as Fistoulari himself confirms on his final Phase 4 recording, would normally take about 150-160 minutes.

Faced with the alternatives of either the complete but disappointing 1972-1973 performance or the exceptionally fine 1961 recording that only offers “highlights”, a strong case can be made for this 1952 LSO disc as offering the best available option for anyone wanting to hear Fistoulari’s take on Swan Lake. That, however, would certainly be a case of damning this recording with faint praise, for it is, in its own right, a very fine one indeed.

As that perceptive concert reviewer of a century ago noted, Fistoulari’s rhythmic sense is one of the most distinctive features of his conducting. Unsurprisingly for someone with a long history of working with ballet companies (notably with the Ballets Russes in the 1930s), he keeps the focus firmly on danceability – an obvious point in ballet, you might imagine, but one that is not so often appreciated these days when there is a tendency to beef up what’s seen as the more “symphonic” elements of Tchaikovsky’s three scores. Act I alone will be sufficient to convince the attentive listener that Fistoulari’s rhythms are pitched exactly as they should be, whether they are broadly in line with most other performances on disc (the crisp opening no. 1 scène or, in the extended pas de trois sequence, a particularly graceful 4a intrada, a nicely sprung 4c allegro semplice and a tightly controlled 4f coda) or taken at a slightly more deliberate pace that might be considered more accommodating to real-life dancers (6 pas d’action and 8 danse des coupes).

Apart from his mastery of dance, Fistoulari’s conducting here is also characterised by both finely graduated dynamic control that adds to the performance’s theatricality and a greater than usual degree of orchestral transparency. Just, again, confining my comments to the opening Act, there are repeated occasions where the finer details of Tchaikovsky’s scoring, often overwhelmed in other accounts by the rest of the orchestra, are brought to the fore. In a review of this same performance (review), my colleague Jonathan Woolf noted the pleasing prominence accorded the harp, a particularly important instrument in many ballet scores where composers use it to emphasise the delicacy of dancers’ gestures and footwork. It is brought particularly effectively to the fore here in the 4a intrada. Note too the way in which Fistoulari highlights the percussion’s contribution in the more declamatory opening and closing passages of the moderato episode of the 4d pas de deux or how the triangle cuts effectively through the same dance’s 4f coda. In all of this, it goes without saying that the conductor benefits from the accomplished playing of the London Symphony Orchestra – whose chronicler Richard Morrison specifically picks out Fistoulari as one of the “illustrious names” especially associated with its recordings in the early 1950s (Orchestra – The LSO: a century of triumph and turbulence [London, 2005 edn.], p. 103). The achievement of the musicians and their conductor is emphasised even more by the very finely detailed sound quality achieved by Decca engineer Kenneth Wilkinson – and remastered for this re-release by Paschal Byrne.

Kenneth Wilkinson had also engineered Fistoulari’s Nutcracker recordings with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in 1951. A small handful of tracks on an earlier Decca Eloquence portmanteau release The world of ballet (review) also featured the PCO/Fistoulari and my colleague John Sheppard considered them to be the most successfully realised in what he otherwise considered a somewhat lacklustre set: “here”, he wrote, “there is real colour, rhythmic dash and atmosphere”. Interestingly, too, John considered one particular account – that of the passo a sei (soldiers’ dance) from Rossini’s William Tell - to be “especially effective with speeds that are sometimes slower than usual, to the music’s great advantage”. That, I would suggest, is another instance where, as suggested above, Fistoulari sacrifices superficial excitement in favour of tempi that would suit a real-life staged ballet performance.

The conservatoire orchestra, which was wound up in 1967, had a long association with ballet, with two of its chief conductors – Edouard Deldevez and André Messager – having composed music for works that are still popular and performed today (Paquita and The Two Pigeons, respectively). Fistoulari’s experience in music for dance seems to have led to something of a meeting of minds with the Paris musicians, for these are once again highly impressive accounts. For his Forgotten Artists article cited above, Christopher Howell listened to many of the recordings they made together in the 1950s and, after doing so, drew the following striking conclusion: “In numerous discs from the 1950s… [the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra] presented an image of amiable sloppiness, oh-so-characterful and oh-so-French, but ragged and undisciplined. Nobody has ever reported that Fistoulari was a martinet, yet he invariably has that orchestra playing with sizzling articulation, rhythmic alertness and real bite”. Perhaps, it’s true, nobody ever thought Fistoulari a martinet of the type of Toscanini, Reiner or Szell – but let’s not forget either that, when he was still a young boy, our aforementioned uncannily perceptive critic had specifically noted his “overpowering will”. Perhaps that was the trick in transforming the Parisians?

Whatever the case, I promise that you will enjoy these Nutcracker accounts as much as Christopher (“the sort of gut commitment that is the touchstone of great Tchaikovsky conducting”), Jonathan (“how perceptive… how well-paced and dancer-friendly”) and I have done. Incorporating all the characteristics already identified in the Swan Lake recording, they are of even greater interest because they comprise not just the familiar Tchaikovsky op. 71a suite of divertissements (Dance of the sugar-plum fairy, Russian dance, Waltz of the flowers and the rest) but a second suite created by Fistoulari himself. Rather than concentrating, as the first suite had done, on the obvious stand-alone party pieces, he elects to string together several almost-as-familiar moments taken from the continuous score. While, it has to be admitted, the transitions aren’t always ideally felicitous, this second suite is both hugely enjoyable and a real discovery.

Although this new reissue is marketed as the 1952 Swan Lake’s “first CD release on Decca”, it did appear, as already mentioned, more than a decade ago on the Opus Kura label. Similarly, the two Nutcracker suites also enjoyed an Opus Kura release in which they were coupled with Fistoulari and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra performing music from The Sleeping Beauty (OPK 7041/2). The sound on those Japanese issues is, to my ears, simultaneously a little warmer and slightly more recessed than in the new Decca remastering. The latter has, meanwhile, a greater sense of immediacy. Its easier availability to purchasers and the fact that the accompanying and usefully informative documentation is in English rather than Japanese, will probably, swing the balance for many, I think, in favour of investigating this delightful Decca Eloquence reissue.

Rob Maynard

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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